I grew up in the urban belt of central New Jersey. I was a city girl, but I loved to camp and hike in the summer. I loved both extremes – the man-made chaos of the city and the organic chaos of the forest. After attending college in Virginia, I felt a definite pull towards the natural and settled in the country on three acres of semi-mountainous land where I have lived, loved, and experimented with ways to live from scratch. I am no homesteader – just a girl from Jersey – but I feel the things that I try bring me closer to the core of my human ancestry, my history, my earth, and my self.
Some of the things I like to do are really easy. I liked the idea of making my own soup stock, but following a recipe seemed to make it much too complicated and expensive to possibly be worth it. One day, after I had triumphantly roasted and eaten a chicken (still a new skill at the time), I sat on my couch guiltily glancing into the kitchen at the large lump of a carcass sitting atop my dishwasher. The one or two chickens I had roasted before had been picked clean and carried up into the woods behind my house for the forest critters to gnaw on. I figured I would do the same to this chicken, but it seemed such a waste when I had paid for all of the bones and giblets, which I knew contained unmatched nutrition. I decided – forget recipes – I was just going to boil down the chicken parts that I had and see what I got. That first time, I just boiled the giblets and carcass. I don’t even think I threw in any peppercorns or bay leaves. I let it boil for a long time, maybe five or six hours, until it looked broth-ish. I tasted it and was pleasantly surprised – it really just needed some salt. I strained the broth (a bit of a chore – I put a big colander over an even bigger bowl and started scooping), and then I spent maybe half an hour picking through the meaty bits, taking out the leftover meat. I threw that back into the pot with some salt, carrots, frozen peas, and a quarter cup of dried rice and ended up with an excellent soup – flavorful, rich, and homey. (Not that we made soup from scratch at my house – my mother used bullion and homemade soup was rare – but it struck that same warm note.) I was hooked on homemade broth.
Now I make chicken broth whenever I roast a chicken – probably just once every two months or so – and I make vegetable broths occasionally. To boost the flavor and nutrition, I save my vegetable peelings and cuttings regularly. When I chop celery, mushrooms, onions – anything, really – I save the peelings and ends in a small plastic bag and stick it in the freezer (probably need to rethink that plastic, though). I don’t have to worry about pesticide residues because I buy pretty much everything organic. (I consider it an investment in my body [million dollar machine, right?] and the body of the earth I came from.) Anyway, eventually my freezer is full of a zillion little plastic bags, and one day I decide to make soup. (It makes the house smell very warm and heartening and adds a lot of humidity which is great in the winter.) I dump the contents of each bag, frozen, into my largest pot along with the chicken parts if I have them. I throw in five to ten peppercorns, a bay leaf or two, and any other random thing I feel like throwing in – like thyme or rosemary from the garden, if I have it, or some carrots or celery that I’ll pull out and use in the final soup. Then, I fill it up with water until it comes about an inch below the brim of the pot and throw it on a burner set to medium. Then I leave it for about five hours, stirring if I feel like it when I pass. It gets down to about one third of its original depth. Then I strain it, dump it back in the pot, and add stuff. If I am adding meat, I cook it in a pan separately. I try to get some flavor in there; I cook it as though I was going to eat the meat alone. Then I chop it up and drop it in with some frozen veggies, rice, pasta, or whatever sounds good at the moment. The thing about soup is that it needs a lot of salt – much more than you think it will need. If it doesn’t taste good – sort of flat and weak – it needs more salt. Soup that began as a whole 8-quart pot, boiled down to a fourth of that, might need, like, one or two teaspoons of sea salt (that’s what I use, so I don’t know about other kinds.) I know we need to watch our salt intake and it seems like a lot, but you get a lot of nutrition with it, so I just accept it for what it is and move on.
I always freeze what is left. I used to use Tupperware containers, but I’ve switched to Pyrex. They seem to have different lines of containers, some of which are cheaper than the others. I found mine, with somewhat unsightly, bright red lids, at Walmart. I spent about $25 to get 6 small, 3 medium, and 3 large containers, but at this point, I believe I have actually saved money. I used to be rather loose with the disposable containers, leaving them unopened far too long and then just tossing them, mold and all, but that hasn’t happened with the Pyrex. I guess I see them differently because I haven’t let them go as long, and when I do, I go ahead and just wash them out because I know there is no way the mold has somehow seeped into the walls of the container. When they are washed, they are clean. And no BPA to boot.
(Below: Mushrooms and celery await a second life as stock in the freezer. A warming vegetable broth boils away happily on the stove.)
So here’s a very unrecipe-ish recipe for homemade chicken soup. Where I’m unclear, just follow my explanation above. Give it a try. After that, maybe you’ll have the courage to throw this and all soup recipes out the window and scratch yourself up some soup of your own.
Scratch Chicken and Rice Soup
1 roasted chicken carcass and giblets, about 2 cups of vegetable cuttings and peelings, 2 bay leaves, 8 peppercorns, ½ bag of frozen peas, ½ bag of baby carrots, ¼ cup dry rice, 1-2 teaspoons salt, water
Remove as much of the remaining white and dark meat from the bones as you can. Fingers are useful here. Reserve.
Place bones and giblets in a 8-quart pot. Add peelings and cuttings from carrots, celery and onions. Add two bay leaves, eight peppercorns, and fill pot with water, leaving an inch to the brim. Place on a burner over medium for 3 – 6 hours (depending on the thickness of your pot) until reduced to one-third.
Ladle liquid through a colander into a bowl. Discard carcass, preferably in a wooded place. Return the liquid to the pot.
(To reduce the fat, put the broth in a bowl and refrigerate. The fat will separate and become solid, floating on the top. Skim it off, put the broth back into a pot on the stove, and proceed.)
Add roasted chicken meat, half a bag of frozen peas, half a bag of baby carrots (chopped into small rounds), a quarter cup of rice, and salt to taste . Heat through, for about twenty to thirty minutes or until rice is done.